The ‘age of broadband’ has arrived. Broadband is gaining critical mass among the SME community and it’s not difficult to see why it is likely to be your optimum internet platform. Sally Whittle reports on how broadband could allow you to compete more effectively with larger enterprises as well as your peers.
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After years of hype and false dawns, we can finally say the ‘age of broadband’ has arrived. Maybe not in time to ride the wave of the internet boom, but broadband has something more important: critical mass.
By the end of this year, 1.8 million households in the UK will have access to high-speed internet services, or just over 5% of all households nationwide. Globally, there are 80 million subscribers to high-speed services, an increase of 75% over the 2002 figures, according to research group Point Topic. Broadband isn’t just changing what we do in the office: consumer adoption of broadband mobile phones and wireless broadband is also increasing dramatically.
Businesses like yours are beginning to adopt broadband in large numbers. Research by Computer Weekly shows that 54% of UK SMEs now have high-speed connections, and BT is signing up 3,000 new broadband customers every month, says Jerry Thompson, Director of Business Broadband at BT. "Over the last 12 months we’ve seen enormous growth in demand for broadband from SMEs," he says. "We’re now in the period of white hot growth."
SMEs have traditionally lagged larger businesses in adoption of new technologies, and broadband has been no exception. "SMEs associate technology with risk, and they really need more hand-holding," says Ranulf Scarbrough, Program Manager at Act Now, which offers advice and support to SMEs in Cornwall.
Act Now recently linked up with BT to broadband-enable local exchanges in the region, but persuading local SMEs to adopt broadband isn’t simply a question of availability, says Scarbrough: "We sent in advisors to help with installation and support, and in some cases we co-financed the new ICT required to use broadband effectively," he says.
It is not out of the realms of possibility that moving to broadband will create more problems than it solves. Certainly, having an always-on, high-speed connection does put your business at greater risk of virus attacks and other security problems, and you must seriously consider upgrading security, server and other software packages. "With broadband you may want to have a hub, and share the connection between several people, and that might mean using network cards and creating IP addresses for each computer," says John Coulthard, Head of Small Business with Microsoft UK. "But those things can be sorted in a couple of weeks and don’t need to be too troublesome if you have good partners."
Moving to broadband can, in some cases, simplify your IT function, adds BT’s Thompson. A business moving from six dial-up connections to a single broadband connection will find that the amount of time taken to support users will fall. BT has also developed a 24-hour support package, specifically designed for SMEs using broadband services, which provides online support through a dedicated call centre.
There are other benefits. Broadband customers typically use routers (rather than modems) to connect to the internet, and these can be far more adept at re-establishing connections if there is a problem on the phone line. Security patches and software upgrades can be easily downloaded over a high-speed connection and often automated so that the user doesn’t have to spend time making sure software is up-to-date.
This kind of support has also helped small businesses to see the potential of broadband beyond faster internet surfing. For many small companies, a high-speed connection makes new technologies such as wireless LAN, virtual private networks (VPN) and online transactions possible for the first time. "Along with the adoption of broadband, we’re seeing an increasing interest in things like wireless networking, remote working and e-commerce," says Thompson.
Of course, these services existed before broadband, but the key point is that the applications should now be affordable enough to persuade you to go out and buy broadband services, says Andy Kitchener, Chief Executive of e-commerce software vendor Shopcreator. "Broadband is evolving from an exciting new technology to being a platform for these powerful, always-on applications," says Kitchener. Applications such as online back up or voice over internet protocol phone services would not have thrived without broadband, Kitchener argues.
For the 54% of businesses like yours who have broadband connections, there are different priorities. Recent research by Shopcreator and BT Global Services identified four areas where broadband has most impact on businesses: e-trading; back--up and security; collaborative working; and cost reduction.
"Everyone is familiar with the benefits of broadband for personal use, whether it’s faster music downloads or faster email, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the business environment," says Kitchener.
"For businesses, the real benefit of high-speed access is the ability to use faster, more reliable connections for functions like e-commerce and web conferencing."
When independent software developer T-Plan moved to broadband in September 2003, the biggest benefit wasn’t the increased speed of its internet connection. "What had the biggest impact was the ability to use things like VPN," says Steve Coombs, an account manager with the firm.
T-Plan has 20 employees, many of whom work remotely. VPN software allows those staff to securely access software on the main office server, and have instant access to email and other business systems. "It’s as though they are in the office," says Coombs.
Since adopting broadband, T-Plan has also been able to provide e-learning applications for employees and web-based conferences and training programs for customers.
The company has even invested in a new remote support application that allows support staff to control remotely customers’ PCs to diagnose software problems quickly and effectively.
"We used to rely on a series of dial-up connections, which probably cost the same as what we have now," says Coombs, "but there’s no comparison. With broadband we can be so much more responsive."
As well as better support and new applications, broadband can also help your business to smarten up its IT systems and compete more effectively with larger competitors.
"Broadband lets businesses do things like integrate their website with their ordering system in real-time," says David Greggains, Vice-President of Operations with the DSL Forum, an industry consortium that promotes high-speed DSL access.
In addition, Greggain believes that businesses like yours are changing the types of service they offer because of broadband access. "New broadband technologies like SDSL (symmetric DSL, which offers equally high upload and download speeds) let companies do completely new things, like online gaming and video-on-demand," he says.
The growth of broadband in the SME market has also persuaded enterprise software vendors to create new, hosted versions of applications that you can access over the internet, thereby allowing you to compete more effectively with enterprises.
"Companies like Siebel and Microsoft are now creating products designed with broadband connections in mind," says BT’s Thompson.
"It’s putting the IT systems of smaller businesses into an entirely different league."
Case study: The Bean Shop
The Bean Shop has sold thousands of bags of freshly roasted coffee to restaurants, cafes and consumers in recent years. However, the business has seen dramatic growth since investing in broadband technology.
Based in Perth, Scotland, The Bean Shop buys coffee beans wholesale from around the world, roasts and blends the beans, and sells the blended coffee to local consumers and restaurants. In July 2003, the company decided to try and expand its market beyond Perth by creating an e-commerce website.
Moving from the existing dial-up internet connection to a broadband service was a necessity, explains John Bruce, Managing Director of The Bean Shop. "We needed to be able to maintain a database of products and to handle transactions promptly and we couldn’t have done any of that with a dial-up account," he says. "Dial-up would also tie up the phone line, and we wanted fixed costs each month."
The Bean Shop paid £200 for the installation of BT Broadband, in addition to BT’s Internet Trader Pack, which allows small businesses to rapidly develop a transactional website. Developing its own site was a steep learning curve for the business, Bruce admits, but the whole process took less than three weeks. "We had the line installed behind the counter, but even so, there was very little disruption to the business," Bruce says. "There’s occasional downtime on the network, but it’s very easy to keep the technology up and running."
The broadband connection has allowed The Bean Shop to reach new customers in Europe and the US, and has also improved the efficiency of the business. Because coffee deteriorates rapidly once ground, it is essential that orders are received and processed quickly. "We can now turn around orders much more quickly, and we’re constantly connected so we can predict demand much more accurately," says Bruce.
The company has also taken advantage of packages from BT for security and performance, which, Bruce admits, The Bean Shop would struggle to provide internally. "We aren’t IT experts, so it’s ideal to have a checklist that BT takes care of, for a flat fee," he says. "BT is a big company and have a team of people who know a lot more about internet security than I do."